Natalie Merchant's music has always been marked with the air of a performer wise beyond her years, even when she was in her teens and twenties and fronting 1980s alt-rock staples 10,000 Maniacs. So after also creating the layered, literate, and omnipresent solo hits that fill our ears every time we step into the supermarket, can she go any deeper into the well? The answer, as evidenced by Natalie Merchant (Nonesuch Records), her sixth and newest studio album since leaving 10,000 Maniacs in 1994, is apparently this: Yes, much. On the eponymous, self-produced release—her first all-originals set since 2001's Motherland (Elektra Records)—Merchant imbues songs like the powerfully inward-looking "Ladybird" and "Giving Up Everything" with newfound awareness and an assured, direct approach steeped in the lessons of life. A life lived by an artist examining not only herself, but the world around her as well. Below, she answers a few questions from the road about the new record, her work as a social activist, and other topics. Natalie Merchant will perform at the Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC) in Kingston on July 3 at 8pm. Simi Stone will open. Tickets are $55 and $75. (845) 339-6088; Bardavon.org.
Natalie Merchant is your first album of all-original material in 13 years, which is quite a while. How far back do these songs date?
The songs on this album are drawn from 14 years of songwriting. During this period of time I recorded American and British folk music (2003's The House Carpenter's Daughter; Myth America Records) and adapted dozens of poems to music (2010's Leave Your Sleep; Nonesuch). All the while that I was working on these projects, I was quietly and consistently writing original material, incorporating all the lessons that traditional ballads and classic poems offered.
Your last release, Leave Your Sleep, is a double album of music you set to the poems of Robert Louis Stevenson, E. E. Cummings, and other writers. Although you'd been famously known for your renditions of other artists's lyrics prior to making that album, was immersing yourself in the words of others to such a degree a powerful learning experience for you as a lyricist? How did the process of making of Leave Your Sleep inspire/inform the songs on the new album?
I think the influence that these experiments with poetry had upon my writing was very subtle but my appreciation for simple and direct language has grown deeper. And I tend to make greater use of idiomatic expressions. They are packed full of meaning and that can be useful in lyric writing, which demands strict economy. I've always used personal narrative as a means of delivering messages and these new songs are full of testimony and portraiture. I like creating characters and then dialoging with them inside the songs. The five-year process of making Leave Your Sleep left me longing for a more direct form of self-expression, to speak for myself again in my own words.